Fighting for Fordhall farm

Following on with our theme of the lengths to which people will go to stay where they feel they belong, there is no story more inspiring than Charlotte and Ben Hollins’ battle against the odds to save their family farm and the way of life that their father believed in so passionately.

When we arrived at Fordhall Farm, near Market Drayton, Shropshire, Ben took us for a tour of the farm and explained how it has been in their family for seven consecutive generations. Their father, Arthur Hollins, took it over in 1929 at the age of 14, and subsequently dedicated his life to building a successful business, improving the soil fertility and pioneering organic techniques long before anyone really knew what it meant to be organic.

Ben and Emma.

Ben taking us on a tour of the farm.

However, the family were tenant farmers and, in the 1990s, faced ongoing development pressures from the neighbouring Muller factory. Whilst Arthur concentrated all his efforts fighting legal battles to enable them to stay, and withdrew more money in order to pay the legal bills, stock levels began to decline and the farm slowly began to deteriorate. In 2003, they had another hurdle to overcome with an upcoming public enquiry investigating the future development of Fordhall land and they were facing eviction; it looked very much like they were going to lose the farm.

It was then they had a chance encounter with a visiting entrepreneur who persuaded them that all was not lost and that Fordhall could overcome the odds and survive if it were opened as an educational and social resource. Inspired by his enthusiasm and this new vision for the farm, the family gathered strength and, based on the land’s organic heritage and Arthur’s national reputation in organic farming, managed to defeat the giants and win the public enquiry.

But it wasn’t over yet as their current tenancy was due to expire in March 2004 and they were still facing eviction. Arthur, by now, was also desperately ill and so it was Charlotte and Ben, just 21 and 19 at the time, who had to fight to gain some form of security of tenure at Fordhall. They approached the landlord and begged him to grant them another lease so they could show what they could do with the farm. After months of negotiating and just two days before the eviction date, they got their wish and were granted a new short-term (18-month) lease.

The farm still wasn’t safe though, as the owner ultimately intended to sell, but it gave Charlotte and Ben the chance to prove what they were made of.

And so began the difficult job of turning the farm around so it was a viable business once more. With just a £2,000 grant from the Prince’s Trust, they bought some pigs and a small chest freezer and began to sell their own frozen meats from a lean-to farm shop at the side of the house. Along with their business, their stock levels slowly began to grow, but the farm was still in a serious state of disrepair and so the siblings relied heavily on help from friends and supporters they had picked up along the way to begin to set it right. People came from far and wide to help and Fordhall was already starting to become a community project, with regular working-weekends being organised to try and return the farm to how it was.

The original tenancy was due to expire in September 2005, but, as a result of the commitment they had shown and the progress that was being made at Fordhall, the landlord agreed to offer a one-year extension, which would take them to September 2006.

However, it was also made clear they intended to sell and, even though Charlotte and Ben were offered first refusal, they would need to find £800,000 by July 1st 2006.

Scenes from Fordhall Farm.

Now, we knew the story had a happy ending – by now we were sitting in their kitchen talking to Charlotte, so something must have gone right. But how on earth do two young people raise £800,000?

The answer lies in, among other things, a great idea, a lot of hard work, their unwavering belief in organic farming, the unprecedented support they received from friends and strangers, an inspiring story that attracted a lot of media attention, extraordinary strength of character and, Charlotte’s the first to admit this, quite a lot of luck with meeting the right people at the right time.

They knew there was no chance they would be able to raise a mortgage themselves, but were lucky enough to meet Greg Pilley and Martin Large, who run the Community Farm Land Trust Project in Gloucestershire and offered their expertise and support to come up with the idea and legal structure for the Fordhall Community Land Initiative.

They had also enlisted some full-time help from Sophie Hopkins, who was invaluable in setting up and developing the initiative, and is still working at Fordhall today. The idea was to raise the money by issuing thousands of ‘cooperative shares’, worth £50 each, so the trust could buy the land and hold it for the community so it can never be developed. The shares cannot be traded and no profits can be made from them but, with some help from the press and unbelievable public support, people flocked to support them.

Ben and Charlotte, it seems, epitomise an ongoing battle to protect the countryside from a number of threats, including mass development and chemically intensive agriculture, and their passion and determination obviously captured the hearts of the many people – neighbours, conservationists, wildlife-lovers, businesses, farmers and city-dwellers, to highlight just a few – who sent in their cheques for £50 or more. The shares are life-long and entitle buyers to vote at the AGM. It’s not about the money, you see, it’s about making a stand and preserving the countryside for future generations, and about feeling a part of something. And so, against all the odds, they achieved what many (and even they at times) thought was impossible, and raised the £800,000 just 24 hours before the eviction deadline.

Now the trust owns the farm, Ben and Charlotte are tenant farmers with a 100-year lease. Ben runs the farm, while Charlotte and Sophie run the Community Land Initiative side of things. The business is going from strength to strength as they sell their produce in their new farm shop, on their website and at farmers markets across the country. They have also set up a nature trail and picnic area, and are working towards further developing the farm as an educational resource promoting sustainable/organic farming, and building a bunk-house for the volunteers that still flock there. Furthermore, they are still farming the land as nature, and their father, intended; thanks to Arthur, the farm has been chemical free for over 65 years and they are currently in organic conversion with the Soil Association.

Last year, they had around 10,000 visitors, many of whom were shareholders who had come to see their land. They have also just been named Young Rural Entrepreneurs of the Year in a national competition run by The Field magazine and Lycetts. The prize was a well-deserved and much-needed £10,000, which is being put straight back into the business.

Fordhall farm shop.

The Fordhall farm shop.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and found the whole experience extremely inspiring. Perhaps, on paper, it’s a little hard to comprehend how much they have achieved, but meeting them and hearing it from the horse’s mouth, you cannot help but feel a little in awe of them.

How have they achieved so much?

The answer’s simple really: they are so passionate and endearing, you cannot help but believe in them.

Muddy Matches and Fordhall Farm.

To find out more about the Fordhall Community Land Initiative, the farm and their volunteer weekends, visit www.fordhallfarm.com

We’re hoping to organise a Muddy Matches singles weekend there, so get in touch with lucy@muddymatches.co.uk if you’re interested.

You can also read about their incredible story in their book, The Fight for Fordhall Farm – they gave us a copy and it is absolutely brilliant at keeping us motivated on our Muddy Marathon.

You can also catch up on their latest news on their blog.